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Critic After Dark

Mandy
Directed by Panos Cosmatos
on YouTube, Amazon,
Vudu, and Google Play

PANOS COSMATOS’ Mandy is a trip through a tabletop landscape dotted with scenic views and sudden detours, with long sessions of intravenous pleasure, with jolts of hilarity and horror.

The plot is simple to the point of idiocy — Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live together in a cabin in the woods (right here alarm bells should be clanging in horror aficionados’ heads); one prophet and wannabe musician Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache) lusts after Mandy and sends his Children of the New Dawn — with the help of the Black Skulls biker gang — to kidnap her. Things immediately go south and Red swears, well, bloody vengeance.

Cosmatos seems to be a child of the 1980s or at least an ardent fan (his father George directed one of the — for better or worst — most emblematic action movies of the period, Rambo: First Blood Part II); details work to evoke not so much authenticity as his fantasized ideal of what the decade must have felt like (the opening credits’ Rubens font recall Bantam paperbacks of science fiction and fantasy; the succeeding chapter titles — from glittering azure letters announcing the lovers’ residence to veiny roots sprouting into a vague heart shape that declare the eponymous woman’s name — display a naive emotional openness that rhymes with the protagonist and his woman’s childlike nature).




Contrast this with the movie’s chaotic latter half and the difference is like day and night — or rather like Death Wish done by David Lynch in the style of Monty Python, the violent, the bizarre, and the hilarious mixing it up in a to-the-death struggle. Red steps back into his cabin with raw wrists and a stab wound in his side, hurting in all kinds of ways; first thing he sees on TV is a commercial for the Cheddar Goblin, a green plastic puppet that vomits mac and cheese all over delighted kids. Later one of Sands’ leatherbound bikers takes a shot at him; Red rolls over a sofa and grapples for the shotgun, shrieking “You ripped my shirt!”

That’s really the best thing about the picture: not the violence, of which I’ve seen worse (Takashi Miike anyone? Michael Haneke for the expertly wielded sadism?), or the psychedelic effects, of which I’ve seen better (Ken Russell anyone? Michael Powell staging ballet?) but the wild out-of-left-field humor that seems to bubble up from deep inside Red’s guts, liberated by Sands’ knife thrust. This has been touted far and wide as Cage’s career-best performance, his near immobile posture in the first half suggesting not so much peace as a spring coil released by Sands’ assault to gibber and scream, roll eyes and scrunch face in that particular Cagian manner. Personally I prefer the relatively more subdued, more subtly shaded Cage I saw in David Gordon Green’s Joe — but what do I know? I lived through the ’80s, didn’t necessarily enjoy it. Performances involving recognizably human beings still count for something in my book.

I’d go so far as argue that tracing the movie’s gonzo humor goes a long way towards tracing its appeal. Not the first half — that’s basically setup, with fonts and chapter titles cuing us in as to how to take these idealized settings (the brief interludes with Sands and the biker gang foreshadowing how things will ultimately go). The high point is the Cheddar Goblin, about as cruel a demonstration of the universe’s absurd uncaring nature as anything I’d seen onscreen lately, but Cage does maintain tone with his bon mots and the occasional baroque curlicue of a gesture (at one point he lights up a cigarette off the flames from a decapitated head). When the comedy dries up and Cage shifts into avenging god mode so does much of the movie’s juiciness; Linus Roache livens matters up a bit when Red finally catches up but the rest is really grim fare, the picture more in love with its supposed grandiloquence than anything else.

Give me something like Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, her take on the implacable avenger (which, come to think of it, can trace its roots all the way back to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and before that to John Ford’s flawed yet unforgettable The Searchers). Not much humor in Ramsay’s film — a grievous fault — but there’s wit to her mis en scene, her sound design, her elliptical way with the narrative. No, she has no Cheddar Goblin popping up midway through her work, but she does have Joaquin Phoenix (who seems more and more to borrow from Cage’s repertoire of gestures and expressions) on a kitchen floor singing Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me” with a man he’d just gutshot. Not much humor to The Searchers either (and what there is is frankly embarrassing) but the way Ethan Edwards stands apart from the quietly happy society he seeks to avenge seems both horrifying and tragic, seems to matter. Vengeance narratives are a creaky old genre and quickly grow tired when you haven’t much more to offer than fire and blood and yet more blood. Cosmatos briefly had something but it fizzled out a little over halfway through.